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Project Design 101: How to Avoid the Headaches

The Headache

You’re on a tight project deadline, when you receive feedback from your client. They like the design direction you’re going in, but believe if you “just change X,Y, and Z” the project will feel more complete. You’re already approaching design revision 2,999,999 and BAM—just like that you’re back at square one.

How to Design Strategies for Success

At Constructive, we’ve learned that the trick to avoid these design headaches is to set up strategies for success at the start of each project. While our clients are incredibly intelligent and capable in their given fields, design is often new and unfamiliar territory. In recognizing that the design process can feel daunting and subjective, we have developed a few strategies to help us lay a strong foundation for success.

1. Ask Questions

A great way to ensure a project fails is to come in with assumptions about what your client wants. Designers may be eager to dive into designing great work, but if you don’t understand the problem your client is trying to solve how can you design a solution? To avoid potential miscommunication and design errors, start by checking your assumptions at the door. Spend the first few meetings asking questions and conducting research on your client, the problem(s) they are trying to solve, and the questions that need to be answered. Designers who take more time to understand their clients’ needs will make more informed choices throughout the process. This will increase decision-making efficiency and build a strong sense of trust and mutual understanding with your client. During this stage of project design, here are some questions we try to answer:

Do we understand the big idea?

This helps us clarify the problem our client is trying to solve, as well as the goals they hope this project will accomplish.

  • Example Questions: What is the challenge that our client is trying to tackle? How does this problem relate to their overall mission? Why is this problem significant? What is the purpose of the project? Will this design project solve the problem? Who are our client’s audiences and what are their needs? How will the project help them?

How well do we know our client?

This helps develop a deeper understanding of who you are working with and what matters to them.

  • Example Questions: Who are they? What do they do? Why do they exist? What is their mission? What are their values? Is our client trying to retain their image, or reshape it? What are their short and long-term organizational goals? What are the backgrounds of the team members you will be working with? Has our client worked on design projects before? Does our client understand the design process?

What is our client’s competitor landscape?

Our goal here is to make our client stand out and be seen as a trusted and valuable source. By understanding our client’s competitor landscape, we are able to better differentiate and position them.

  • Example Questions: Who are our clients competitors? Who are our client’s partners? What platforms and modes of social communication does the competitor use to stand out? What does the competitor’s messaging and position look like? Who has the competitor collaborated with on their projects? What differentiates our client from the competitor?

2. Communicate Project Expectations

By documenting project goals, strategies for achieving them, and a plan of action, project teams and clients can create a shared understanding and point of reference for all subsequent choices. Establishing expectations provides the goalposts that everyone can work towards to determine if the project is successful, and it allows everyone to know their role in achieving that success.

Develop or Edit the Design Brief

Create a clear and concise project brief that outlines client problems, big ideas, objectives, goals, and competition. The questions asked in the research phase should allow designers, strategists, and other team members to develop a strategic brief that will guide all subsequent phases of the project and can be referenced by other team members to make decisions and justify choices. This brief should be communicated and discussed across all parties, agreed upon, and understood by your client and your design team.

Delegate Internal and External Team Roles

Within the design team or agency, make sure to establish roles, priorities, and goals for each member of the team. These roles should be communicated to your client, and your client should understand their role in the process as well. It sounds simple, but this step is often overlooked or assumed. By keeping your team’s tasks organized, you ensure that everyone knows who is responsible for what.

Create Realistic & Transparent Timelines

Set clear project deadlines and milestones from the start that allows room for flexibility and inevitable setbacks. Still, you should remain firm to the deadlines that require hard turnarounds or project development. Project managers should be responsible for reminding both clients and designers about approaching deadlines and deliverables.

3. Create a Roadmap for Collaborative Feedback

“Should we make this box red or blue?” is a conversation most designers try to avoid with their clients. Depending on what stage you are in the design process, designers often look to understand if a concept or design is resonating based on the strategic priorities of a project. When this type of feedback is needed, back and forth conversations on minute design details hinders the workflow and delays the process. To make the most of design feedback sessions, designers should help frame how their client reviews designs. In return, the client should trust their designer’s process to find the right solutions.

Educate Your Client on Your Designer Toolkit

Ask your client which design tools and programs they are currently familiar with, and any tools they are not. Educate your client (where appropriate) on the tools they will be expected to use and become more familiar with (e.g., Basecamp, InVision, Adobe InDesign, Google Docs).

Ensure that your clients are familiar with the design language that is relevant for critiquing design, but leave out any unnecessary design jargon from the conversation. Taking time to educate your client on the basics of design feedback and lingo will increase the fluency and ease of communication between designer and client.

Educate Your Client on Design Feedback

Take time to educate your client on your design process. We suggest presenting your client with a list of questions and expectations before meetings, as well as suggesting the types of feedback that will be helpful moving forward. While questions don’t have to be provided upfront, centering the conversation around how the design relates to strategy, communication, usability, etc. is essential to achieving actionable results.

Feedback sessions should feel more like a conversation than a lecture or show-and-tell. Designers should ask questions or prompt their client to give their opinion on layouts and design, and clients should feel free to ask questions of their own. The goal of a design feedback session is to identity what’s working, what’s not working, what can be improved upon or added, and what things remain unclear in relation to the project goals.

Concept Testing

In the beginning stages of the design process, establishing a solid visual direction is crucial. At this stage, the designer should start visual research and turn what they learned from earlier stages into visual assets and directions. In our design process, we often use mood boards to show our clients how these visual examples (e.g., color, type, concept) relate to their brand, messaging, problem, and solution. Creating a word bank or using your client’s language from their strategic brief in meetings is another great way to show your client that you are meeting and listening to their needs.

Your client should have an active voice in selecting a design direction for the project, but once your client picks a direction, the designer and project manager should hold their client accountable to their choice. Changing visual directions once the design assets are created delays the whole process—and increases the budget and scope of the project. To avoid this, budget enough time in your project to establish a solid visual direction that everyone is behind. If communication ever seems unclear, return back to the signed off agreements and briefs that prompted these decisions.

Summing Up

A successful project design starts at the beginning of the process. By knowing a few key strategies and tools upfront, both client and designer can focus on the greater task at hand – creating beautiful and effective work!

About the Author

Leah Garlock

Leah Garlock

Leah believes design problem-solving is as much about actively listening, as it is about aesthetics. The knowledge she acquires from clients enables her to design integrated brand identities and digital experiences for social change agents. At Constructive, Leah assists the senior design team with internal and client facing work, and collaborates closely with UX designers and web developers. She earned her BFA in Communications Design and Photography from Syracuse University where she received a grant to explore the cultural identity of Korean American adoptees. Most recently, Leah collaborated with the Center of Urban Pedagogy and Hollaback!, as a Public Access Design Fellow, to create a bystander awareness guide for public and street harassment. In her free time, she enjoys reading good books, crafting random playlists on Spotify, people watching at coffee shops, and hiking the trails of the Adirondacks.

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